Alice in Wonderland [Blu-ray]

The 1951 animated Disney classic, Alice in Wonderland, has reached Blu-ray for the first time in its 60th Anniversary release. So, you get to see a non-Johnny Depp Mad Hatter have an un-birthday, a Queen chop off some heads, and a really boring Alice stumble through a blah Wonderland without much enthusiasm. Nice animation, though. Alice leaves me cold. Walt Disney’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story, Alice in Wonderland, has just never warmed my heart. I guess the main problem is that little Alice, voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, has got to be the most ineffective, dull, and helpless Disney heroine of all time. The movie might as well be called Some Girl Goes to Wonderland and Sees Things.

As the story is fairly familiar (girl chases White Rabbit down a hole, meets lots of crazy people and animals, almost gets killed, wakes up back in England safe and sound), let’s just focus mostly on the performance of the title character. Beaumont’s Alice never seems to be in charge of either herself or what’s happening with the story. Obviously, it’s not necessarily the point that she be in charge, but the episodic narrative should have someone at the center who we care about, or who holds our interest, or seems to be growing or arcing in some way, right? Well, Alice doesn’t. She just goes here and then there and then over there and then back here and then she’s done. No better or worse than when she started.

While Alice is being pushed and pulled from unrelated episode to unrelated episode, she interacts with characters that are far more funny or interesting or talented than she. So, as she deals with the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn) or the Caterpillar (Richard Haydn) or the head-chopping Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), there are moments of fun, comedy, and…wonder. You can’t help but get a chuckle watching some of the silliness, and there are a few moments of “Hmmm…I guess that’s sorta deep” hidden in there. Unfortunately, we're always left with Alice at the heart of it. She doesn’t seem to have much of a heart, though, and there’s the problem.

The animation isn’t a problem, that’s for sure. While it’s not top notch stuff when compared to some of the other early efforts like Bambi and Pinocchio, it does have a certain manic quality in things like the Mad Tea Party and the March of the Cards. The animators really seemed to work to give a visual treat. The Flower Song is quite lovely as well. It’s just softer and often more interesting to look at than some of the stuff that comes out today, and seems harsh and angular by comparison. Reportedly, people would get high in the '60s and '70s and watch this movie, but it doesn’t really seem any more trippy than any other Disney movie. Have you seen Snow White running through the scary woods to get away from the Huntsman? That has bad acid trip written all over it!

As is noted multiple times in the extras, the film took many years to develop, mainly because Disney’s story people had trouble making the book into a workable script. Frankly, they never quite got it right, which is why, despite being a brief 75 minutes, the film contains 14 songs, more than any other Disney film. It’s more like a group of shorts sharing a common protagonist than a cohesive film. If they’d made their heroine a little more interesting, it might have worked better. While the movie itself is not top-line Disney storytelling, the 60th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Alice in Wonderland is, like many of its Blu-ray predecessors, a worthy addition to the family film collection. First off, you get the beautiful animation and decent collection of songs in glorious HD. If you’ve suffered through watching this on TV or on a crummy VHS copy, now is the time to make the jump, folks.

The one group that might exercise caution in picking up this set (one Blu-ray disc and one DVD copy) are those who purchased the “UnAnniversary DVD” edition in early 2010. While the picture quality gets the SD-to-HD upgrade and looks better for it, most of the extras are recycled, and the new ones aren’t particularly impressive, save one.

The one pretty cool Blu-ray only extra is called “Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland.” It’s a picture-in-picture commentary of sorts. The movie is typically put in a picture that fills about a third of the screen space, and the rest is covered with animation scholars, Lewis Carroll experts, drawings, photos, etc., all giving background on either Carroll, the book, or the movie. It’s interesting and informative, but since the first third of the movie is spent talking about Carroll creating the story for a family of little girls, it skips a lot of the work done on the movie itself. It’s not an “in-depth” commentary for those who want all the ins and outs, but it’s appealing for all ages.

Some of the other new items are a shot of some reference footage used by the animators and featuring Beaumont looking at the doorknob. Even with an introduction by Beaumont, it’s very short, although it seems long compared to a pencil test of Alice shrinking, which, after Beaumont’s introduction, lasts for all of about 10 seconds. Finally, there is a new game that will be nice for kiddos, but nothing earth shattering for anyone over about eight years old.

Almost all of the other material is a repeat from the previous DVD release. The one thing that I like about these extras is that whenever Kathryn Beaumont is shown in publicity stills or shows, she is wearing the Alice dress. It doesn’t matter if she is supposed to be at a party or studying a giant book that says “Algebra,” she wears the dress. You see it in a 13-minute retrospective making-of called “Reflections on Alice,” a television show called “One Hour in Wonderland” that doubles as a soda company commercial, and the “talent” of Edgar Bergen (whose ventriloquism is only slightly better than Christopher Guest displayed in Best in Show), a 30-minute section from the Fred Waring Show that features the film’s music, and something called Operation Wonderland. The last was supposed to show the Disney team “in action” putting the movie together, but it was obviously staged. Still, the real star is Beaumont’s ever-present dress.

There is quite a bit of deleted material, although none particularly impressive. In addition to them playing scenes of the Cheshire Cat while a sound-alike sings a song written for the movie but not used, they have some storyboarded scenes, a few deleted songs without any visuals, and a brief feature on how one of the songs originally written for Alice gained new lyrics and became “Second Star to the Right” in Peter Pan. Still, that lasts for about six minutes and, other than saying, “Well, they wrote some new lyrics,” they don’t have much to say about it.

There is some promotional material, including several introductions of the movie when it was shown in various versions on the Disney television shows. One introduction is shown twice, first as originally shown in crappy SD black-and-white and then again in full HD color. They should really be watched back to back, as they are pretty incredible in contrast. There are also a few trailers.

The final few items are an art gallery that you can page through and two Alice-related shorts from the Disney library. The first is “Alice’s Wonderland,” a very early eight-minute live-action/animation combo effort by Disney from when he still lived in Kansas City. It has almost no entertainment value, but it is interesting as a historical artifact. There is also a nine-minute Mickey Mouse cartoon called “Through the Mirror” that has Mickey meeting some of Carroll’s creations.

It’s a nice package, especially if you don’t have the earlier version. However, the fact that the earlier version was released so recently means that some should be cautious. Unless you know for a fact that you hate the movie, though, any other Disney or animation fan should put it in their collection.